Back in 2012, Jessica Chastain received the Spotlight Award from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, an honor she earned following a string of critically-acclaimed performances in films like The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help.
The actress returned to the glitziest event on the Palm Springs social calendar Tuesday night, making a homecoming-style appearance of sorts in the desert town, but this time for a title turn in just one film, Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game.
In six years, Chastain’s acting credentials have elevated her beyond spotlight-level distinctions. In fact, the two-time Oscar nominee had the honor of closing the nearly three-hour awards event at the Palm Springs Convention Center when she accepted the Chairman’s Award. However, her resume isn’t the only thing that has changed in that time span.
The industry she represents is experiencing a transformation in the wake of sweeping conversations about sexual misconduct and gender inequality, and that is where Chastain elected to place the exclamation point on her well-received remarks. And it’s not the first time: Chastain has been an outspoken leader and advocate for change, and one of the 300 women who helped launch the new Time’s Up initiative.
“Before I leave you guys tonight, I want to acknowledge what a difficult year 2017 has been for all of us,” she said, after thanking fest officials like Harold Matzner and fellow honoree Gary Oldman, whom she met at the 2012 event. “Major change is coming. Change is good. Change is needed. We are all in this together. Each one of us is diminished by flawed systems. Through our joint efforts, we will make things better. We must make things better. We must be better – and we will.”
Speaking of better, Chastain put a positive light on some members of Hollywood’s male population. “We have sadly heard a lot about the bad boys of Hollywood, but I would like to send some deserved love to a few of the good guys with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working,” she continued. Chastain then got teary-eyed when she mentioned the late Dan Ireland, with whom she worked on 2008’s Jolene. Up next: John Madden, Ralph Fiennes, Al Pacino, Tate Taylor, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick and Guillermo Del Toro.
“I am the actor I am because of your grace and guidance,” she added. Chastain saved individual praise for Sorkin, standing just steps away. “He’s the kind of artist that makes you aspire to be better than you are, more intelligent than you are, braver than you are,” she said.
With that, Chastain wrapped up her speech, bringing an end to the Mary Hart-hosted gala (sponsored by American Express along with Cadillac, Entertainment Tonight and Chopard) which saw 11 awards in total handed out to a long list of Hollywood talent, all of whom showed up to accept their trophies (an original Chihuly Glass Sculpture designed by Dale Chihuly or the John Kennedy “The Entertainer” statue). The PSIFF has become a high-profile stop on the awards season circuit in a town that is home to many members of the Academy or other voting groups.
Other honorees included Allison Janney (Spotlight Award, Actress for I, Tonya presented by her co-star Sebastian Stan); Gal Gadot (Rising Star Award, Actress for Wonder Woman presented by Patty Jenkins); Gary Oldman (Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor for Darkest Hour presented by Peter Fonda); Holly Hunter (Career Achievement Award for The Big Sick presented by Kumail Nanjiani); Mary J. Blige (Breakthrough Performance Award for Mudbound presented by Common); Sam Rockwell (Spotlight Award, Actor for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri presented by Colin Farrell); Saoirse Ronan (Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress for Lady Bird presented by Laurie Metcalf); The Shape of Water film team (Vanguard Award presented by Salma Hayek); Timothée Chalamet (the Rising Star Award, Actor for Call Me By Your Name presented by Armie Hammer); and Willem Dafoe (Icon Award for The Florida Project presented by the film’s director Sean Baker.
On a beautiful desert night with temperatures hovering in the 70-degree range, the evening kicked off with Hammer presenting to to his co-star and CMBYN love interest, whom he applauded as “stunningly talented.” Hammer, 31, said his younger colleague, who is 22, took him under his wing and showed him around the tiny Italian town where they were filming with director Luca Guadagnino. Their bond was instant, he added, and “I was made better by him.”
For his part, Chalamet returned the favor, thanking Hammer for his guidance and “big brother ship.” He even gave a nod to other honorees like Gadot, whose Wonder Woman “has made literally 250 million times more money than mine did.” He also tipped his hat to Hammer’s wife, Elizabeth Chambers, thanking her for allowing Chalamet to “crawl all over your husband for two months,” while they were filming the movie’s more intimate gay scenes.
Also touching: Chalamet thanked his agent, UTA’s Brian Swardstrom, for having his back and offering guidance these past five years after they met when Chalamet was a senior in high school. “I simply wouldn’t be standing here without you,” he said. “I got your back as well.”
Other highlights of the event follow.
— I, Tonya star Stan called Janney a “gift to mankind” who pushed the “limit in every single way” with her performance. “She’s already won the Oscar that she very much deserves,” he added. During her speech, the actress said she was inspired by Margot Robbie’s “fierce commitment,” the ease with which filmmakers “shot me out in eight days” while concurrently filming her sitcom Mom, and how the film itself speaks to society’s larger view on class and media.
— Del Toro, joined on stage by Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Alexandre Desplat and J. Miles Dale, said he wasn’t sure what the outcome of today’s uncertain times will be, but he believes that fables and fairy tales “can help restore some of the faith we have lost.” The filmmaker was welcomed to the stage by Salma Hayek, who snagged a healthy share of laughter from the capacity crowd by joking about the fact that she’s never appeared in a Del Toro production. “He’s never hired me. I have no stories for you. I could tell you some stories about getting drunk at his house in Guadalajara, partying at Chateau Marmont, partying in Cannes, singing with mariachis until 5 in the morning,” she quipped. “But that is not very appropriate for tonight. I can’t talk to you about his cat. I could probably tell you how much I admire his work and what I think about it. How much he has inspired me as a human being. But I won’t…because he’s never hired me.”
— Nanjiani may have topped Hayek by delivering the night’s most comical introduction. He praised Hunter, his co-star in The Big Sick, as “the Holly Hunter of acting” and said that it was the biggest achievement of his own career to present her with a career achievement trophy. “It’s all downhill from here,” said Nanjiani, who then detailed the lessons he learned from working with her, including not taking yourself too seriously and to “just commit.” Returning the favor, Hunter said that Nanjiani is “an incredibly easy actor to love,” and someone she trusts implicitly. She also detailed some of her own career highlights by revisiting some of her famous co-stars such as Ray Romano, Gena Rowlands and William Hurt. She then showed off an impressive memory by name checking the night’s entire roster of honorees (and some presenters), listing them off one by one. “You’ve all whispered to me and I thank you.”
— “I love you so much, man,” Rockwell said to Farrell following a generous introduction that showcased their bromance over the years. “Is anyone drunk yet?” The Three Billboards star then singled out his co-stars in the Martin McDonagh film, saving “the incredible” Frances McDormand for last, dubbing her a “Wonder Woman” in her own right.
— Metcalf praised Ronan for her “incredible depth and dedication,” adding that she “literally brings joy to the set every day. I love and adore her.” Ronan really loves her character in the Greta Gerwig-directed film, saying that she wants to be Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson when she grows up. “She has all the good faith and spirit within herself to achieve anything she sets her mind too,” she added. “She is smart, kind, funny, a dreamer. She is herself. Being given the opportunity to play someone so wonderfully human is a gift.”
— Oldman used his acceptance speech to make a major announcement. “My wife and I are making Palm Springs our permanent home,” he said, to rousing applause. “So, it does feels a little bit like, a local boy makes good.”
— Blige thanked her “amazing cast” who made Mudbound such a great experience for her, and director Dee Rees. “Thank you so so much for making me feel so comfortable,” she said. “Playing Florence was a heavy experience for me. … It wasn’t easy at first to find this character because I didn’t realize how vain I was until I had to play a character like Florence.” To get there, she had to ditch “a lot of wigs, lashes, nails the whole thing.”
— Gadot thanked blockbuster helmer Zack Snyder who originally cast her in the part of Wonder Woman before he stepped off, making way for Jenkins to come in to create a female-led franchise. “I’m so excited to go on with you again,” Gadot said to Jenkins, referencing the sequel. “You will get tired of me.” The actress then also thanked co-star Chris Pine for “making me better in every scene,” even when he was making her laugh during just about every take.
— Baker traced back his exposure to Dafoe’s onscreen talents, which he discovered on VHS courtesy of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. He played Eric Masters and was “very naked,” Baker recalls. “He left an impression.” And he followed his career, knowing even back then what an icon he was. What would later surprise him was how committed he was on the set of The Florida Project when Dafoe refused to strap on a harness during a scene that required him to climb a 30-foot ladder. Producers refused to let him do it without, and Baker joked that Dafoe was likely still bummed out about the situation. Meanwhile, Dafoe summed up the entire event when he said this: “It’s been a nice evening. Long, but nice.”
Celebrations continued after the gala at a private VIP reception at the Parker Palm Springs, and the film festival rolls on as well. Screenings and events continue through Jan. 15.